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Wednesday
Oct012008

An industry with a great future behind it

I read a great article today about Sister Ray Records in London. It was my favourite record store in the capital. Or at least - I thought it was. In fact, Sister Ray was not my favourite record shop because I liked Sister Ray. It was my favourite record shop because it fitted a romantic, nostalgic notion about London independent record shops.

And that ‘nostalgic’ bit is kind of weird, because I didn’t grow up in London, but in a suburb about 13,000 miles away at the bottom of the planet. And I’m not nostalgic about Jim’s Record Spot in Panmure, even if that was where I bought my first album with my own money (David Bowie’s ‘Scary Monsters’, since you ask - but it was a toss-up between that and Donna Summer’s ‘The Wanderer’).

London independent record shops mean something. And to me, Sister Ray encapsulated that. Fine. But it’s not a great way to continue to do business. As Brett points out in his article - when you actually look at it on its own merits, and take all that nostalgia stuff away, Sister Ray was dark, overpriced and staffed by people who’d rather you’d just go away. And that might have been fine once. It just isn’t now. There’s no room for any of that. Things have changed.

But that’s symptomatic of a wider problem, rather than a misreading of the times by a single record store.

No business is a logical necessity
The whole recorded music industry was developed in response to a series of social forces, market forces and technological forces. Along the way, it contributed to a fair share of its own market, technological and (particularly) social changes. But it has always existed in relationship to those phenomena.

And in all the discussion about the online music environment, I don’t think it’s ever been made really clear that the record industry is neither a naturally occurring phenomenon, nor a necessarily permanent fixture. It grew up less than 100 years ago in response to a bunch of forces that have since changed again. Not changing in response seems like, to put it bluntly, kind of a Sister Ray thing to do.

I am, it has to be said, nostalgic about that David Bowie record I owned. It was a great record, it was on good vinyl, and I played it until it fell to bits. But I don’t think that Jim’s Record Spot in Panmure should still be selling it alongside Donna Summer records, just because that’s what they’ve always done (actually, they went out of business years ago - but you should consider them - and Sister Ray - as metaphors, rather than real record shops).

My prediction - sorry
Now, I make a point of saying that I can’t predict the future. I get asked to a lot, and I simply won’t. Anyone who says that they know where the music industry is going is either a liar or a fool. Either way, ignore them.

But I can tell you what the future of the music industry WON’T be. The future will not be the past.

So if you’re doing what you were doing ten or even five years ago, you are simply not compatible. If you have not sought to understand all of the social, technological and market forces that have come into play, and you are not undergoing an aggressive period of radical change - or, better yet, completely redesigning your business from scratch - then you might as well take your ball and go home.

Because while I might feel very sad about the demise of your business, and feel an odd nostalgia about what you have meant to me throughout my life - you are not the future.

Something else is.

Reader Comments (10)

Yeah give'em both barrels, Dubber.

Seriously, seen too many Grandpa Simpson sounding characters hanging round this blog, for real - and a few younger ones who should know better - who need a wake up call if they're actually going to get anywhere near consistent revenue.

Right as usual, Andrew. Nostalgia is a human emotion and it provides a conservative cultural context but it's not that helpful from a business perspective. The whole notion that there ought to be a *music* industry in the first place is, to your point, only something that was created and developed in the modern age.

It's kind of a bummer. But also exciting. The real bummer is that there was a time when society thought a song was worth something and the value of a song is rapidly approaching zero.

I'm not sure I buy Bruce Warlia's argument that you can use songs as marketing to get people to trade up to something they will ultimately pay for but I guess it's better than acknowledging a crueler reality.

October 1 | Unregistered CommenterSam

Sam, what else would you suggest?

I like the Darwinism behind Warila's strategy -- you need to have pretty fucking outstanding mp3s if you're going to grab people's money/time/attention with free content. It works, though.

October 1 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Good post - really, the "music industry" is a microscopic blip compared to the vast history of humanity (and thus the vast, rich history of music). Maybe the smart marketer should crack open a "History of Music" textbook and try to find the commonalities of older "business" models - from patronage to troubadors to meistersingers...?

October 1 | Unregistered CommenterTrierMusic

Is there a hint of the idea that the "industry" could be regressing to the days of the traveling minstrel? Or for some more recent examples the "folk / beatnik" or the 80's "punk" scene? What I mean by this is that given the immense saturation in the musician pool and the decay of the last 100 years of "recording industry", is the best option for the musician to keep it simple, economical, and core-fan focused?

It seems that is what the 80's Punk bands in mid-western America did and I would dare say they took their cue from the folky-beatnik's who most likely got the idea from old blues men. When I was in a punk band it was great! We traveled to the local cities playing shows, sleeping on floors and getting just enough money to make it to the next gig. It's no way for an adult father to live, but I think the concept could be revised or updated to something manageable with a sufficient ROI.

Small, simple and focused (combined with talent of course) might be the better plan...than big, expensive, flashy and ultimately brief for the majority.

What do I know?
Milton

October 1 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

Cool stuff, Andrew!

I like that you said how unnecessary or unnatural the record industry is... dependent on technological advances.

That same fact in turn is completely true of my trade, being a recording engineer, and I think about that a lot. Wondering if I'm doing anything meaningful - probably not.

October 1 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Shapiro

@ milton

"sleeping on floors" = "those days were great"

Now that's nostalgia!

October 1 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

Strong stuff in here! The changes in the music industry are a huge interest to me, it's incredible what has happened over the last 5-10years, and the next 5 are going to be just as crazy.

I think in the music business there's always gonna be the more 'music-y' people who do want a song to be worth something (great line Sam), and will love the nostalgia and the old days. Unfortunately they will struggle in the future.

There's also the 'business-y' people, who can adapt and pump out endless songs for free fodder with the hope of other revenues, but will they make it instead? No matter how business savvy you are, you can't polish a turd.

;)

October 2 | Unregistered CommenterLee J

The argument made does have a certain "Captain Obvious" ring to it, but it makes an improtant point. I agree wholeheartedly, the context is changing and the industry needs to change, too.

I also do not know what the music business of the future is going to be. I do know however - and I'm going to keep repeating this, in the Napolean tradition, until I convince everyone - that it's not going to be giving music away for free. Giving your product away for free isn't a business, it's a charity.

The recording industry isn't a necessary element in human existence as such, but it is necessary if music recordings are to be a part of that existence. I for one pray that I won't live to see the day when music will be used solely to sell another product. That will be the day when it ends to be an art form.

Having said that, I do believe that making music for ads or elevators is still a profitable activity. Have fun, y'all.

@ Bruce,

It was certainly "Youthful Nostalgia"! I can't deny that. As a young teen with little to no responsibilities it was an acceptable and enjoyable lifestyle. But now that I approach 40 with a lovely wife and two children...well, it is not a viable option at all.

But I am optimistic that a revision or update to the general DIY-ness of that punk era process could be developed (and surely has by many bands/artists). I just haven't developed mine yet.

For me the soundtrack / scores & cues work is the most workable area of music for me to be in. With the children being young as they are, I do not foresee any touring of my own self indulgent "songs". That can come after the children are grown and out and about on their own. Being able to compose short pieces of music for film and television is manageable from my home which allows me to be the father I want to be. Technology allows me to work from the southeastern USA and deliver music to firms in LA and NYC without ever leaving my studio desk.

As for the band out to make the dream of pop culture icon success...I couldn't even begin to have the time needed to achieve such a goal. More power to the young bachelor musicians out there! Enjoy it while you have it!

October 2 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

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